When David Howard first acquired this archetypal Oily Rag exotic, an original-paint 1930s Alfa 1750, it cost him £175 ($275, back in 1956). The estimate when it goes to auction at Bonhams’ Goodwood Revival sale on 15th September is £120,000+. In theory, he stands to make a… er, modest profit on his original investment, but the story isn’t quite that simple.
The car, a 1932 Fifth Series Alfa Romeo 1750 Gran Turismo cabriolet, was exhibited when new by the UK importers at London’s Olympia Motor Show. It was sold off Stand 66 for £995 to Miss Jane Laing, the dashing younger daughter of a Newcastle marine engineer. Jane’s elder sister already owned a similar Alfa, but they traded it for this one, which had been specially prepared for the Show with chrome plated fittings (including the brake drums) and a black and silver snakeskin interior.
By the time David Howard, at that time a car-crazy teenager with ambitions, as he says, well beyond his station in life, caught up with the car it was on display in a very different environment – on the sales floor of a run-down used car emporium in London’s Great West Road. One short ride was enough to convince the young enthusiast that they were made for each other.
He raised the cash by selling an heirloom carriage clock his octogenarian Godmother had just given him. “Reprehensible,” he says now, “But kinder than selling the old bird herself, which I would have done if I had to.” So the Alfa was his.
The car’s appeal to a certain type of collector today is that it has been properly maintained but never restored, damaged or modified in any significant way. The lusty six-cylinder twin cam engine, four-speed manual transmission, instrumentation, lighting system and all the evocative period fixtures and fittings are pretty much as they were when Miss Laing took delivery 80 years ago. Metallic silver-grey paintwork, worn but intact, gives the car a glamorous gravitas that would make it a stand-out in the Preservation class at Pebble Beach or Villa d’Este.
But what of its history since it first came into young Howard’s hands? Well, with no income to speak of, and not even a driving licence to his name, he was in no position to become the long-term keeper of a car of such distinguished pedigree. After his 17th birthday, duly licensed, he enjoyed it to the maximum for a year or so before exchanging it with another London dealer for a 4½-litre Invicta.
Over the next half century, having established himself as one of Britain’s best known dealers in Vintage and classic machinery, David had more top quality cars through his hands than most of us have ever seen. But, somehow, the memory of that first thoroughbred lingered on until one day in 1994, browsing through some old paperwork, he came upon a photograph of it he had taken all those years ago. Whatever had happened, he wondered, to ETN 627? Had she survived?
A phone call to the national vehicle registration office in Swansea soon established that the Alfa did still exist. They wouldn’t reveal any details, of course, so David wrote to them asking that his letter be forwarded to the current owner. A week later a reply arrived from the very man who had bought it back in 1957 direct from the dealer Howard had sold it to. He explained that he had driven it for only a few months before a big-end failed, since when it had sat untouched in his garage awaiting an engine rebuild.
Persuading the guy to part with the car was not so straightforward, but eventually a deal was struck and David Howard became the owner, second time around, of his very first car. Since then he has enjoyed re-visiting old friends and old haunts in it during return visits to the UK from his current home in rural France, revelling in its lively performance and refined handling. But the time has now come, he feels, to look for someone younger who will drive it regularly and cherish it in the same untouched condition for another generation.
“If I could put a binding legal covenant on the sale to prevent that car ever being restored,” he says, “I would.” So, step forward Oily Rag aficionados. Now is your moment…
- Douglas Blain